EUOBSERVER / CHISINAU - Belarus has pledged to protect the human rights of irregular migrants at a meeting with EU officials. But the move stands in stark contrast to its brutal treatment of pro-democracy protesters at home.
The five-man Belarus delegation, led by interior ministry director Mikalai Shevchyk, at a conference in Chisinau on Monday (23 January) signed up to a set of non-binding "recommendations" on how the EU and its post-Soviet neighbours should handle irregular migrants in future.
Two Belarusian officials sitting beside counterparts from EU countries Austria and Bulgaria in Chisinau (Photo: EUobserver)
The text has a section about "ensuring protection of human rights" which says: "Eastern Partners welcome the EU intention to ... promote judicial reform and strengthening the rule of law [in their home countries]" and that "special efforts should be made to improve protection of most vulnerable victims."
The Belarusian interior ministry controls the riot police that were bussed into Minsk on 19 December and which brutally beat up unarmed demonstrators in the city's Independence Square.
Oleg Popov, a junior Belarusian foreign ministry official, told EUobserver on the margins of the Chisinau event that he and his colleagues were "given a very warm welcome".
Asked how the pledge on migrants' rights squares up with the Minsk beatings, he said: "We do not think this [the recommendations] is connected to politics. These are technical issues."
He said that Belarus has no plans to restrict its citizens from leaving the country if EU member states relax visa requirements for young people and NGO workers in order to support the pro-democracy movement, as planned.
Belarus was invited to Moldova under the auspices of the EU's Eastern Partnership policy. One EU sanction being considered in response to the December crackdown is to exclude Belarusian officials from future Eastern Partnership events.
Agnieszka Weinar, a visiting fellow on EU migration policy at the European University Institute in Florence, told this website that the move would be a mistake. "You can't shut people out. I am Polish. If Europe had not talked to the Communists [during the Cold war], I would not be here now [in Chisinau]," she said.
An EU official at the meeting said some of the envisaged migration projects, such as the creation of a Euroeast Police, which would see EU security officers train counterparts in Belarus, could help change the violent culture of the Belarusian police.
The recommendations in general focused on how to stop people from entering the EU illegally rather than on migrants' rights, with some conference guests uncomfortable about the tone. "We want to see a lot more on human rights, not just as a footnote to security concerns," Claude Cahn said on behalf of the UN.
The European Commission is to draft an Action Plan based on the Chisinau agreement in June. The upcoming Polish EU presidency will hold a follow-up meeting with EU countries and their post-Soviet neighbours in the Polish city of Poznan in November.
A recently leaked cable from the US embassy in Estonia shows what Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko thinks about EU migration issues. "Lukashenko [at a private meeting with Estonia's foreign minister in 2009] added that the EU, 'can sleep soundly at night,' because Belarus protects the EU's border from illegal immigrants. He lamented that the EU does not give Belarus any credit for this," the US dispatch reported.